Pornography websites Pornhub, XVideos, and Stripchat have been designated as “Very Large Online Platforms” (VLOPs) under the European Union’s Digital Services Act (DSA). This classification subjects these sites to stricter requirements for verifying the ages of their users and mitigating the spread of illegal content. The European Commission announced this designation, highlighting the need for higher scrutiny and accountability of their algorithms and processes.

The European Commission classifies online services as VLOPs if they reach the threshold of 45 million average monthly users in the European Union. Initially, an initial set of 17 Very Large Online Platforms and two Very Large Online Search Engines was announced in April 2023, including major platforms like Amazon, Facebook, and Google. However, there were no pornography-specific services on this list.

XVideos claimed to have 160 million “average monthly recipients” in the European Union, while Pornhub reported 33 million monthly users. The inclusion of Pornhub as a VLOP suggests that the EU doubts the accuracy of the company’s self-reported numbers. XHamster reported 32 million monthly users, and YouPorn reported 7.2 million. These numbers have been a subject of controversy, with some NGOs criticizing the platforms for misrepresenting their user figures to evade VLOP designation.

A group of 30 NGOs, including European Digital Rights and the Center of Democracy and Technology, have called for major pornography sites to be designated as VLOPs. In an open letter, these NGOs expressed concerns that the reported user numbers from some platforms were significantly lower than expected, suggesting an attempt to dodge responsibility and avoid being held accountable for risks on their platforms.

Digital civil rights group Access Now raised doubts about Pornhub’s reported 33 million European users, considering SimilarWeb’s traffic analysis, which suggests the platform receives over two billion visits per month. Access Now deemed Pornhub’s reported figures unlikely and called for greater scrutiny.

The EU’s designation of VLOPs aligns with global efforts to enforce stricter age verification for pornography sites. Several US states and countries like France and Germany have also pursued regulations at the national level to age-gate these platforms. The UK has recently passed its Online Safety Act to address age verification measures.

VLOPs, including Pornhub, XVideos, and Stripchat, must comply with the DSA’s strictest regulations by February 2024. This includes conducting risk assessments, mitigating the spread of illegal content, and implementing age verification processes. Additionally, these platforms must adhere to transparency requirements such as external audits and publishing transparency reports on content moderation decisions. All online platforms and search engines, regardless of VLOP designation, must also comply with general DSA rules, including mechanisms for reporting illegal content and avoiding targeted advertising based on sensitive data profiling.

Some companies, including Amazon and Zalando, have mounted legal challenges to be removed from the VLOP list. However, EU regulators have been proactive in enforcing the DSA rules since its initial implementation for the first batch of VLOPs in August. Formal requests for information have been sent to Meta and TikTok regarding their handling of illegal content and disinformation related to the Israel-Hamas war. Formal proceedings have also been initiated against X (formerly known as Twitter) to assess potential DSA breaches.

The designation of major pornography platforms as VLOPs in the EU signifies a significant step towards ensuring stricter age verification and mitigating the spread of illegal content. It emphasizes the need for platforms to be accountable for their algorithms and processes. As efforts for age verification continue globally, the EU’s enforcement of the DSA regulations sets a precedent for other regions to follow.

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